Backyard Vineyard Update - Year 3
Updated: Jan 10, 2021
This year the backyard vineyard really filled out. We got our first small harvest of both red and white wine grapes. I am beginning to learn the challenges for this growing region (Pittsburgh, PA), along with which grapes seem to be at home here. It is certainly possible to grow great wine grapes in Southwestern, PA but it is no easy feat!
If you haven't been following this project, you can start here.
My favorite things about the vineyard.
When I factor in my time, it would be a lot better to just buy wine grapes (which I still do.). My time in the vineyard doesn't feel like actual work, even though it is often sweat inducing. It is more of a purposeful reason to get outdoors. You never know what you will find when flipping through the leaves and positioning shoots. As I learned in the first two years, there is always some new pest trying to de-leaf the vines or infect the berries. It's me against nature out there, in the best way. Sure, I'd love to feed all the little insects and fungi, but not with my grape leaves and berries! Just like a student to teacher ratio might be important in a school, a human to vine ratio can make all the difference in a vineyard. I can spend a lot of time with each individual vine, helping them to develop what it takes to make great wine grapes. This just isn't possible when working with a larger vineyard with thousands of vines. The process can be a little challenging, but oh man is it rewarding.
Vine Growth Update
Most vines are around 3/8 inch to 5/8 inch in diameter at the trunk (end of season) and are fully filling the trellis, so the vineyard looks mature and beautiful from a distance. Every vine produced fruit this year and the wine from that fruit is entering the bulk aging stage as we speak. Next year, the vineyard should be operating at near full capacity which should yield around 400-500lbs of fruit.
The 2019-2020 winter was relatively mild, causing no issues whatsoever on the grapevines. On May 1st most vines were at bud break and ready to leaf out at full force. Things were looking great, and there were no signs of cold weather on the forecast, so I was very optimistic. My optimism was short lived though. On May 8th, we had an unexpected deep freeze with overnight lows reaching around 25°F. This wiped out all new growth with a total loss of about 80% of the total buds. Luckily the remaining buds and a portion of the secondary buds turned out to be fruitful and we did get a small harvest (about 125lbs). To help guard the vineyard from future late freezes or frosts, I installed an overhead sprinkler system which should ice over the vines.
Aside from the freeze situation, the weather this year was great (for Pittsburgh..). The summer was mostly dry as compared to the last few years which helped to keep vegetative growth in check and reduced mildew and mold pressure. The growing season was relatively long, with first fall frost hitting on October 31. This allowed everything to ripen fully without issue.
General Vineyard Tasks
In the spring the main tasks were de-hilling the vines and pruning.
De-hilling is the process of removing the dirt mounds used to protect the graft union over the winter. A grape hoe works extremely well for both hilling and de-hilling and can also keep the area under your vines weed free if you want a workout.
I pruned late in an attempt to delay bud break and prevent spring frost or freeze damage. When a vine has to spread energy to hundreds of buds, it will take a lot more time to reach bud break. Bud break generally occurs first at the ends of the shoots, then works backwards to the base. The buds that would make my canes (if spur pruning) were the first one or two at the base of last years canes. You can delay bud burst pretty effectively with delayed pruning but you never know how late a frost or freeze might occur.
Another popular strategy in colder regions is to cane prune instead of spur prune. This method involves a renewal cane closest to the trunk on each side, that is bent down the next year to form the new cordons. Everything past that is pruned off. Since the buds open up starting at the end over the span of a couple weeks, you are unlikely to lose everything if a frost happens. I did a little bit of cane and spur pruning this year. A good set of hand pruners is essential when pruning.
Once new growth starts, you can begin positioning shoots which is oddly satisfying. My trellis is setup for Smart Dyson, but for now I am only using the top wires and doing Vertical Shoot Positioning (VSP). I feed the canes up through the guide wires as they grow and occasionally tie one off with a velcro plant tie or pull the wires together with a plastic clip. If the canes get too crowded, you can thin them out or spread them out (Or bend them down if you have a Smart Dyson trellis). If the canes grow too tall, you can trim them back. If you have excessive lateral shoots you can trim them if they get in the way. You want to make sure that the vegetative growth does not start to shade the berries too much.
If any grape clusters are dramatically off schedule compared to the neighboring clusters, they can be clipped off. Ideally clusters of the same variety will all reach optimum ripeness at the same time. If a varietal seems to be struggling to ripen in your area, you can reduce the crop load by limiting each cane to one or two clusters.
Many of the varietals that I am growing, favor long, sunny growing conditions. To help encourage ripening I pull leaves at or below the clusters that may cause shade to the berries. Early in the season, I do this on the east side (morning sun), and later on the west side (more about this later).
Managing pests is a large portion of the work in the vineyard and is most important from bud break to harvest. Without good pest management techniques I would not have grapes.
2020 Pest Challenges and Solutions
We have no shortage of grapevine pests in the Eastern US. The pests fall into three categories in my experience; vertebrates, bugs, and molds/mildews/diseases.
The most persistent warm blooded pests that I run into are whitetail deer, birds, rabbits, and groundhogs... oh, and small humans. At this point, I have got them pretty well figured out and crop damage has been very minimal this year.
I have 1 joule electric fence around the vineyard with a single wire about 25 inches off the ground. This has surprisingly kept the deer out completely. I hang a few bars of Irish Spring soap off of the end posts in the area that deer are most likely to enter. I think this helps to put the deer on edge so they don't try anything fancy (deer love trying to pull one over on you). The electric fence is on a timer to turn on shortly before sunset and off after sunrise. I also keep it active year round to effectively train the deer to stay out before they realize what they are missing out on. The microsecond jolt from the fence is very startling but not harmful to our white tailed friends.